IRIN: “Laos: Cluster bomb focus raises hopes for development”

Posted: Aug 5, 2010

Laos: Cluster bomb focus raises hopes for development

Laos is the most cluster-bombed country in the world. Photo: Toby Fricker/IRIN

VIENTIANE, 5 August 2010 (IRIN) – A new cluster bomb ban has finally come into effect, but 37 years after the last US bomb fell here, Laos – the world’s most affected country – still feels the impact of unexploded ordnance (UXO) across all sectors of society.

“The UXO problem now constitutes an impediment to socio-economic development in our country. We cannot carry out our development projects and poverty eradication without getting the UXO out of our land,” Saleumxay Kommasith, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told IRIN.

According to Lao government statistics, US forces dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance between 1964 and 1973. Each year, about 300 people are killed or wounded in UXO accidents.

John Dingley, UN Development Programme (UNDP) senior technical adviser to UXO Lao, the national clearance operator, said the costs of clearing agricultural land were roughly US$1,900 per hectare. But in the case of land being used, for example, for schools, the search for UXO has to go deeper and that figure could more than double.

Dingley said the scale of the problem in Laos was unprecedented. “More bombs were dropped on Laos than Germany and Japan put together in the Second World War.”

Funding hopes

There is hope that the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which went into effect 1 August, will stimulate much-needed funding for mine clearance in Laos. Photo: UNDP

Laos will host the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in November and will assume the presidency for the following 12 months.

The hope is that with its increased presence on the international stage, further funds will go to Laos. A UXO trust fund has been set up by the government and UNDP in Laos to manage the resources for the UXO sector.

The convention, effective on 1 August 2010, and signed by 107 states and ratified by 37, bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Most importantly for Laos, the treaty has a strong focus on assisting those affected and calls on all states to clear land within 10 years.

Dingley believes the 10-year timeline for Laos is not realistic, although the convention does give clearance projects a fresh impetus.

“It means we can set a bunch of targets, for example, we can aim for something like all agricultural land [to be] cleared in 10 years and so we can really [go] to the donors and say help us to do this, help us achieve a target. But in order to achieve that… money is the big issue,” he said.

The UN in Laos says UXO is hindering the country’s attempts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and its target of no longer being a least developed country by 2020.

Cleaning up

UXO Lao has cleared almost 24,000ha of land since 1996, while from 2006 to 2008, it cleared 93ha of land for an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Rural Livelihood Improvement Programme in southern Laos, opening up fields for rice cultivation, constructing a new school, dispensary and roads, in addition to ensuring access to safe drinking water.

According to government figures, all 17 provinces of the country – and 25 percent of villages – are still contaminated with UXO.

For one of the main drivers of the economy, the mining industry, the search for UXO often goes to a depth of 16m.

“UXO presents a unique threat to operations. In 2008, we cleared 100,000 bombs from an area of roughly 3,500ha,” said Richard Taylor of Minerals and Metals Group (MMG), a mining company that has spent up to $3 million a year over the past decade to clear land for its projects.

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